All Christy De Souza needed was the opportunity. It’s all any driven young person wants, regardless of colour, creed, race – and physical/mental disability. Christy, the cover star of last week’s Business Day, has Down Syndrome and like so many others like her, appearances are deceiving. Christy got glowing reviews at her job at the Office of the Prime Minister – Gender and Child Affairs Unit.
But if not for a placement programme organised by the Down Syndrome Family Network to place people with the disorder in a conventional work environment, it’s entirely possible that she would not have even been considered for the job. And even though she’s excelled, she has no real job security, and is currently at home waiting on her contract to be renewed.
It’s something disability activist Shamla Maharaj has had to grapple with as well, where, despite her educational excellence, people still have a hard time looking beyond the physical manifestations of her cerebral palsy. Speaking to a recent panel on women’s empowerment, Maharaj said one of the reasons she was so driven to pursue her PhD was so people would see beyond her wheelchair or slurred speech and accept – respect – her for her achievements and abilities, beyond her disabilities.
About 15 per cent of the world’s population have some form of disability and two to four per cent of them have significant disabilities affecting their ability to function. In the Caribbean, there are about 1.3 million people with disabilities and about a quarter of those have significant disabilities.
People with disabilities are also likely to be among the most unemployed – or underemployed – people in the society. A study by the Commonwealth of Learning in 2018 about the state of people with disabilities in TT found that 4.3 per cent of the population had disabilities. As small as this number may be, proportionally, disabled people fare significantly worse than their “normal” counterparts. Only 50 per cent of people with disabilities complete secondary school compared to 80 per cent for those without. Only 30 per cent of them are economically active, versus 70 per cent for the rest of the population, and 76 per cent of people with disabilities are in the lowest two income brackets, versus 55 per cent of those without.
Removing the notion that disabled people can’t work requires a cultural recalibration. The right to decent work and earn a living is a human right, in a workplace that is accepting and accommodating of their needs. As it stands, the Government has adopted a National Policy on People With Disabilities, and among its goals is to ensure that there is more awareness and inclusion in TT workspaces.
The Equal Opportunities Act is supposed to prevent discrimination in the workplace based on disability, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. Education is also restrictive, because children with disabilities can fall through the cracks of the traditional school system, unable to keep up because of a lack of focused, specialist teaching. Often, they have to attend special schools, denying them the ability to learn socialisation skills and also the typical qualifications for mainstream jobs.
The national policy acknowledges these shortcomings in the current system, and is trying to address them, either through legislative review, inclusion and awareness programmes, especially among employers, and making workspaces accessible for people with disabilities.
But it takes more than a nicely worded policy or a picture with a hashtag on Instagram to engender change. Government has the chance now to prove its worth, leading by example and giving Christy, Shamla and others like them the opportunity to shine. The private sector, concerned about a labour shortage has an untapped resource ready, willing and still able to work, just maybe not in the conventional way. Supporting people with disabilities goes beyond wearing ribbons or funky socks for one day a year.